I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where romance fiction “fits” in the scheme of things literary. I’m tired of arguments either defending the genre or condemning it, discussing its relevance or irrelevance … blah blah blah. Not that these discussions aren’t relevant, they are to those who partake and more power to them. I do enjoy listening “in” to the Twitter debates, etc. But I have been asking why I persist in reading romance when the world around me makes the romance’s domestic world focus feel irrelevant. I think we read romance of any ilk, paranormal, historical, contemporary, conservative to radical in its perspective, because it’s utopian (minus the satire; there is nothing Thomas More would recognize in the genre). End of thought bubble.
The latest “utopian” romance I read was Kelly Bowen’s Last Night With the Earl, depicting the love and closeness of Napoleonic War veteran, Eli Dawes, the eponymous “Earl” of Rivers, and artist Rose Hayward. Like many romance couples, Eli and Rose are “broken” and their relationship, as it plays out, works towards achieving their healing and wholeness. As a narrative, it succeeded and failed in depicting their story.
Before Eli and Rose can heal individually, they must heal the rift of their relationship. Before Eli and his band of dissipated, privileged rakes had their feathers ripped out at Waterloo, they ran amok in London society. Eli’s best friend, Anthony Gibson, son of Viscount Crestwood, was engaged to Rose. RIP Anthony. During their engagement, however, Anthony cheated on Rose and publicly humiliated her and other women by publishing sexual caricatures of them. As a result, Rose left the ton and retreated to Dover where she teachers art at her family’s Haverhall School for Young Ladies, young ladies too broken in mind or body in some way and who deviate from society’s conventional expectations. In short, Rose is a loosely-termed feminist, using a proto-form of art therapy to prove to the unloved and unloveable they are beautiful and worthy. The Dover-set branch of the school is housed in the rented space of Eli’s estate, Avondale. The novel opens as Eli arrives at Avondale, long thought dead at Waterloo, to reclaim his title and fortune after years of physical recovery in France.
Eli’s brokenness is immediately apparent: one half of his beautiful angel-face and upper body were blasted away. All he wants to do now is hide and fulfill his duties to his title. Eli’s physical reappearance prefigures his emotional resurrection. But there’s the angry Rose to contend with first. Rose, though she and Eli shared a friendship in the past, assumed that Eli was part of Anthony’s cruelty. The novel, therefore, opens with a certain pride on Eli’s part, manifested in his shame over his physical appearance and a load of prejudice on Rose’s. Because Rose is caustic but kind and interested in bringing out beauty where social convention doesn’t recognize it, she softens towards Eli and teaches him that his former beautiful face is not what makes him beautiful. She helps him “see” his worth and Eli is then able to take his responsible, rightful place in his community by working towards helping returning veterans.
Rose’s brokenness is internal and involves her social humiliation at Anthony’s hands. As Rose and Eli reestablish their friendship, fall in love, become lovers, they grow in strength and bravery. This is the crux of the romance’s utopian “lesson”: we are made whole when we love and are loved. I thought Eli’s healing, realizing love, and finding purpose, felt like a complete narrative. I thought Rose’s, on the other hand, somewhat truncated. As a result, the romance fell into two halves: the first, Eli’s, strongly developped; the weaker second, focussed on their feels and the healing of Rose’s fears, more sketchily developped. In the end, I couldn’t quite make up my mind whether there was too much story to be told, or not enough. Moreover, I think Bowen’s romance will be accused of imposing modern, feminist sensibilities on historical characters: Rose is a feminist, with her ideas about what constitutes beauty and Eli’s careful characterization as a man who is respectful and considerate about Rose’s agency. Maybe Bowen may be criticized for wallpapering, but I think it’s the natural ethos of a utopian genre to do so. Though Last Night With the Earl isn’t perfect, it’s worth reading. With Miss Austen, I’d say it offers “real comfort,” Emma. (It’s followed by a Grace Burrowes Christmas novella, which I didn’t read and can’t comment on. Okay, I read the ending, for a little further HEA-shot, and it was pretty good.)
Kelly Bowen’s Last Night With the Earl is published by Forever Books. It was released on Sept. 25th and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from Forever, via Netgalley.